Go home now, junta orders stunned cyclone refugees

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 May, 2008, 12:00am

Military gives desperate families until tomorrow to move on

For the homeless in the Myanmese town of Kyauktan, tomorrow looms as a day that could be as terrifying as the one when Cyclone Nargis struck 16 days ago.

Huddled and hungry in the flooded town hall, 25 families have been told by local military officials they must leave by tomorrow, urging them to return to their devastated homes.

'They didn't come with food or aid, they only told us to go home,' said 60-year-old U Maung Win. 'I asked them 'what home?' We have no homes after the storm.'

'They didn't care, they just ordered us to go and warned us that they would be back to check on the deadline.

'The only thing we can do is try to stay and find food. Like everyone here, I can't even afford the bamboo and thatch to make a simple cottage. I've lost everything in the storm.'

U Maung Win's tale is repeated with grim regularity around Kyauktan, a town 50km southeast of Yangon, near the mouth of the Yangon River. After flattening large swathes of the Irrawaddy delta, Nargis swept across the river, scoring a direct hit just north of the town, turning old teak monasteries into matchwood and destroying entire villages.

Yesterday, I found a crack in the curtain of military checkpoints now surrounding Yangon and trapping foreign aid workers - including UN officials - in the old capital.

Assisted by locals determined to get the reality of their plight out of the country, I made it to Kyauktan to find hundreds of homeless clustered in weary groups in the few local schools, halls and monasteries still standing.

East of the hard-hit delta, Kyauktan has received less attention than other places. No foreign aid has reached the town and locals say that the few handouts from the ruling military government have been far from evenly distributed.

Many pointed with anger to an apparently well-kept government emergency camp of 40 blue tents on the edge of town.

'That is what we all need but I have been told they aren't for me,' U Maung Win said. 'None of us know who is allowed to shelter there.'

The empty hall surrounding him was a grim sight. The floor was flooded with several centimetres of water from a leaking roof, and several people lay groaning in a makeshift sickbay at the side of the building.

One four-month-old baby died eight days ago and some in the shelter feared further deaths would follow as they struggled to fight off disease. Children could be seen playing in piles of rubbish while their mothers searched the town for handouts and their fathers took to odd jobs like chopping fallen trees to earn enough to buy rice.

The town centre itself was thronged with young beggars. Several children said they had been forced to beg after officials pushed their families away from a shelter in a school, saying it had to be prepared for the new school term in a few weeks.

A further 180 families - 400 people - are clustered in the Pani Yatti Monastery in the heart of town.

There, revered local Buddhist monk Pynya Wuntha said he had been told by authorities to start sending people away.

'I don't know where else they are supposed to go,' the 83-year-old said. 'They are here only because they need help and we are doing our best to give it to them. These people have nothing.

'For the moment, this is a good place for them. They are welcome.'

He urged greater efforts from the government to provide both shelter and food aid. Foreign aid could also play a vital role, Pynya Wuntha said.

Government aid supplies have proved meagre, and each day his monks seek food in the form of alms to feed the homeless.

'Feeding such a large number of people is difficult, but we are trying our best to manage,' he said.

The situation in Kyauktan - just over an hour's drive from Yangon - highlights the widening gap between the official rhetoric of Myanmar's junta and the reality on the ground.

News that people are growing increasingly concerned about just feeding themselves and finding shelter in coming days comes despite official claims that the need for emergency relief is over, all part of the junta's justification for squeezing aid supplies to a trickle.

When Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej visited Yangon late last week, his Myanmese counterpart, General Thein Sein, said that the 'first phase' of the government's relief operation was over.

'We are now going into the second phase, the rebuilding phase,' state television later quoted him as saying.

In Kyauktan, the wider international struggle to get aid to them is barely understood. Knowing their government is unable and unwilling to provide help in their darkest hour, they are doing what they can to get by. Many, however, are starting to wonder whether it will be enough.

'I'm a 60-year-old widow and look at my house,' one survivor said, pointing to the wreckage of her single-storey wooden house next to the monastery. 'What am I supposed to do now? This monastery is all I have and I'm not going to leave. The monks are good to us, they know what to do for the community.'

Across a river from the monastery is the Yele Paya, one glimmer of hope for the people of Kyauktan. The island pagoda is a major draw for both local and foreign tourists and was left largely unscathed, despite the 3.5-metre storm surge that lapped at the edges of its temples.

Huge catfish that for decades have flocked to the pagoda's edge for food were swept away in the floodwaters, only to return in the last few days. Volunteers were yesterday scrubbing mud from its flanks.

'The pagoda is still in the river, so there is still hope for us all,' one resident said.